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Family Purity

Family Purity


Family Purity

An appreciation of the concept of family purity, taharat ha-mishpachah, is fundamental to a deeper understanding of Jewish marriage. Because it offers new and fresh insights into the sexual aspects of marriage, it is important to consider it before one enters marriage. The law, indeed, requires that a bride begin the practice of family purity within four days before the wedding, as she stands at the threshold of creating her family. Special attention should be paid to the personal preparations, specifically for brides. In case of doubt, a properly ordained rabbi should be consulted.

A superbly written account of the concepts of "family purity" appears in the book A Hedge of Roses by my brother, Dr. Norman Lamm. What follows are excerpts from that small but important book. (A clear and detailed description of the laws of family purity can be found in another excellent English-language work on the subject, Pardes Rimonim: A Marriage Manual for the Jewish Family, by Dr. Moses Tendler.)

The Concept of Family Purity

Jewish law forbids a husband to approach his wife during the time of her menses, generally from five to seven days, and extends the prohibition of any physical contact beyond this period for another seven days, known as the "seven clean days." (That is why one will always find, in observant Jewish homes, two beds for husband and wife, never a double bed.) During this time husband and wife are expected to act towards each other with respect and affection but without any physical expression of love—excellent training for that time, later in their lives, when husband and wife will have to discover bonds other than sex to link them one to another. At the end of this twelve to fourteen day period (depending upon the individual woman), the menstruant (known as niddah) must immerse herself in a body of water known as a mikvah and recite a special blessing in which she praises G‑d for sanctifying us with His commandments and commanding us concerning immersion (tevillah).

The mikvah itself—along with its prescribed dimensions and source of the water—is an ancient institution. It was in wide use during the times of the two Temples, for in those days anyone who had contracted any of various kinds of "impurity" was forbidden to eat of sacrificial meat or the tithe, or to enter the sacred precincts of the Temple. The way of effecting purification was through immersion in the mikvah. Most of these forms of impurity have fallen into disuse today, simply because of the historical circumstance of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.; today there is neither sacrifice nor Temple. Only the law of the impurity of niddah remains intact, for it affects not only the right to enter the Temple in Jerusalem, but also the intimate marital relationship of every couple. (One might add, as a historical note, that Christianity took over from Judaism the institution of tevillah, or immersion, as the rite of initiation into the Christian communion; but that in the course of time it modified it so that most sects define baptism as the sprinkling of water upon the communicant rather than the full immersion in the pool.) mikvah is used today not only for family purity, but also for the initiation of proselytes, both male and female, into Judaism. In addition, some pious male Jews immerse themselves before prayer and before Sabbath and Holy Days. The mikvah is a communal institution, generally an inconspicuous building, and administered with the utmost of modesty and delicacy...

By thus preparing for their wedding and afterwards for their monthly marital reunion—separating from each other and then, before joining each other, the wife immersing in the mikvah, and reciting thereupon the blessing thanking the Al-mighty for sanctifying us through this institution—husband and wife acknowledge, in the most profound symbolic manner, that their relationship is sanctified and blessed, that it is pure and not vulgar, sacred and not salacious. Family purity has a magnificent cleansing effect upon the psyche. It purifies and ennobles the outlook of man and woman upon each other and their relationships to each other.

Staying Married

That Judaism's view on these most intimate aspects of married life is worthy of consideration by modern young couples is indicated by the striking record of domestic happiness characteristic of Orthodox Jewish homes even in the midst of an environment where the breakdown of family life becomes more shocking with each year...

This typical Jewish family cohesion is surely not the result of any indigenous ethnic or racial virtue of the Jewish people. Nor does it derive from some general, well-intentioned but amorphous "concern for religious tradition." It is, most certainly the product of the specific "Orthodox" tradition—Halakhah or Jewish "way of life." It is this codified tradition, this obligatory law, that has bestowed the gift of stability upon the Jewish family...

Taharat ha-mishpahah is also crucial in protecting the marital bond from one of its most universal and perilous enemies which comes to the fore soon after the newness of married life has worn off: the tendency for sex to become routinized.

It is easy enough to get married. It is quite another thing to stay married...

Familiarity and Boredom

Unrestricted approachability leads to over-indulgence. And this over-familiarity, with its consequent satiety and boredom and ennui, is a direct and powerful cause of marital disharmony. When, however, the couple follows the Torah's sexual discipline and observes this period of separation, the ugly spectre of over-fulfillment and habituation is banished and the refreshing zest of early love is ever-present.

There is so much insight in this comment of the rabbis! Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, and a little absence does make the heart grow fonder...

With the institution of taharat ha-mishpahah... the drama of love-without sexual-contact followed by the loving union of husband and wife and their being together is repeated every month. Thus the separation of husband and wife physically during the period of niddah and the "seven clean days," when they may express to each other feelings of tenderness without any physical contact, is equivalent to the period of engagement. Then, just as she did when she was a bride, the wife undergoes the immersion in a mikvah, recites the same blessing she did as a bride and comes to her husband, in purity and love, as she did on her wedding night...

There are some people who imagine that voluntary separation will accomplish the same result, and that it is therefore unnecessary to follow the whole pattern laid down by Jewish law. But such voluntary separation ultimately proves inadequate. One partner may suspect coldness on the part of the one who proposes the withdrawal. Moreover, a lack of religious sanction means that the entire separation will no longer be elevating and ennobling as it can be only when it is informed by religious significance.

The Affirmation of Life

The institution of family purity possesses grand symbolic significance when seen in the context of all of the Torah's legislation concerning tum'ah and taharah, terms which are loosely and misleadingly translated as "uncleanliness" and "cleanliness" or "purity" and "impurity." The reason we term these translations as inaccurate is because they imply, or at least they allow the listener to infer, that there is some hygienic element involved in them. This, of course, as explained above, is simply not so. They are spiritual states, and have no relation to physical disgust or attractiveness...

Each form of tum'ah has a specifically prescribed procedure to revoke it and allow the defiled individual to regain the state of taharah or purity. However, there is one element that is common to all forms of taharah, and that is immersion in a mikvah, which is the climax of every procedure of purification.

What, in the larger sense, is it that underlies all forms of tum'ah, and in what way, in the same sense, does mikvah neutralize the principle of tum'ah?

A Whisper of Death

The Torah is a "Torah of Life."

The Torah itself defines for us the purpose of all the commandments: "and he shall live by them"—"and not die" (Lev. 18:5; Sanhedrin 74a).

An analysis of the various species of tum'ah reveals that what they all have in common is the awareness of death. The most potent source of impurity is, indeed, a corpse, or a part thereof. The other kinds of tum'ah imply, directly or indirectly, fully or partially, the suggestion of death, even if only the loss of potential life...

A man who suffers from "running issue" (a form of gonorrhea) is impure. The issue is semen, and therefore the loss of potential life... Hence, the state of tum'ah. In the same manner, when a woman is niddah, during her menstruation, she loses an unfertilized ovum, and it is this loss of potential life, this whisper of death, that confers upon her the state of impurity...

By the same token, taharah or purification is a reversal of the process of tum'ah. Just as tum'ah implies death, taharah implies life. And it is the mikvah above all that symbolizes the affirmation of life. For it is water that is the most potent symbol of life. "And the spirit of G‑d hovered above the face of the water" (Gen. 1:2). Fresh water is itself called, in Hebrew, mayyim hayyirn, "living water."...

All organized living matter, from protoplasm through man, is in itself essentially watery. The average early human embryo is 97% water, an adult man 60%. Body water continues to diminish slowly with age, "as though the water content of the body were a measure of its vital activity. It would appear that the flame of life is sustained by water." ...

Freudian psychologists recognize that in dreams and myths the ocean or water is a symbol of life, for man is born from a bag of water, the amniotic fluid, of the mother...

Similarly, when a non-Jew wishes to convert to Judaism and be received into the Covenant of Abraham, we require of him that he immerse himself in the mikvah. For the proselyte is considered a new individual, a new-born child, and the sense of birth, of new life, is emphasized by the mikvah. By emerging from the waters of the mikvah, a new Jew has been born to us.

So that tum'ah, the intimation of death, whether it be through niddah or any other form, is counteracted by immersion in the water of the mikvah, the symbol of life.

By means of this symbolism, we may understand the special requirements for a mikvah. The mikvah must be a gathering of natural water, such as a well or lake or rain-water, and not a pool or bath artificially accumulated by such means as plumbing. The question "what is the difference between (natural) water and (artificial) water?" already perplexed the ancients. According to what has been said above concerning the symbolic significance of water, we may begin to appreciate the difference between the two. By insisting upon the naturalness of the waters of the mikvah, we affirm that G‑d alone is the Author of Life and to Him and Him alone do we turn for continued life for us and our descendants after us. Man is not the absolute master of his life and destiny; mayim she'uvim, water artificially accumulated, does not therefore possess the power of purification that appertains to natural water. Life is of G‑d.

Wedding Procedure for the Menstruant Bride

If the bride is a menstruant on the wedding night, the wedding ceremony must be modified somewhat, but it will not be apparent to the guests. The seclusion of bride and groom after the ceremony (yichud) is omitted, or it may even be held, but with another person present. This wedding ceremony is called chuppat niddah.

Because there will be a great desire for sexual fulfillment, despite the restrictions, the couple should be chaperoned.

The Groom and the Mikvah

It is a custom in some Jewish traditions that the groom is also immersed in a mikvah. The author of Chuppat Chatanim says, "It is a good support for the soul. He should silently confess his wrong-doings during the immersion, for it will help him shed the external trappings he heaps upon himself. If, for some reason, he cannot get to the mikvah, he should intensify his study of Torah. That will purify him."

The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Anonymous July 12, 2016

Baptism Just a comment about Christian baptism - most Protestant churches engage in full immersion, not sprinkling. Only the Catholic and Protestant sects closest to Catholicism still sprinkle e.g., Lutheran and Episcopal(which pours or immerses). Reply

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